To improve efficiency during World War I the 10 London postcode districts which had been introduced in 1857 were subdivided into numbered sub-districts, thus London EC (Eastern Central) became EC1, EC2, EC3, and EC4. Within their densely and diversely populated and developed bounds lie the majority of the City of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London and multiple layers of London history. Multiple layers of personal history also abound for artist, Danny Rolph, with generations of his family on both sides having lived in the area for centuries. Born and bred in EC1, Rolph explains that when curator, Sharon Newton, approached him with the idea of doing an exhibition at CNB Gallery, which is in EC2, he thought that it was, ‘a rare opportunity to shine a light on the area in which I grew up and formed me as much as my family and friends’.
East Central, Rolph’s first solo exhibition in London for four years, is arranged as an installation reflecting each of the EC sub-districts through four large scale, mixed media, abstract works on Triple Wall polycarbonate sheets. Triple Wall which is traditionally used as a roofing material has become a signature medium for Rolph, after he first saw its potential whilst at The British School at Rome as an Abbey Scholar in 1998. ‘I was instinctively drawn towards its preexistent purpose within industry,’ he says, ‘but saw poetic potential in the clear surface with its double layering and horizontal lines which reminded me of lined writing paper – I knew straight away that I wanted to compose in paint on, in and behind this surface – I like its overt modernity as well’.
The straight lines of Triple Wall also carry an echo of modernist architecture, not least Kestrel House, the 18 storey, 1960s residential tower block on City Road in which Rolph lived whilst growing up. EC1 was one of the most heavily bombed areas of London in World War II, with an estimated 90% of the housing suffering some form of damage, and during post war reconstruction many modernist housing estates were built, including designs by pioneering modernist architect, Berthold Lubetkin, such as the now Grade II* listed, Spa Green Estate. For Rolph, the ‘incredible architectural history’ of EC London remains a primary inspiration. ‘The view from our kitchen window contained sunset and sunrises of the type that Tiepolo imagined,’ he says, ‘populated by architectural silhouettes of St Paul’s, the Old Bailey and the Post Office Tower.’ This panorama gave him ‘space to daydream and compose’ and the vivid colours of the skyscapes and geometric modernist shapes and classical detailing of the skylines dramatically imbue the works in East Central.
Equally each work is filled with motifs of dynamic movement reflecting the life at street level where, as he says, ‘there were the people and space to cause a little mischief’. As children he and his friends and extended family – he had lots of cousins in the area – were encouraged to ‘play out’ in King’s Square (a Blitz-damaged Georgian garden square which was redeveloped as a modernist high rise estate), the basements of tower blocks, or around the nearby and then largely forgotten and run down Regent’s Canal and City Road Canal Basin. ‘We used to spend time there with nets pulling out tadpoles,’ says Rolph, ‘and I was regaled by tales from my granddad, Banky, about the darker side of the canal – all the dead bodies at the bottom!’ These rich threads of oral history have also informed Rolph’s work, ‘everyone and their families had stories going way back,’ he says, ‘including lots of World War II narratives – most families had lost loved ones during the Blitz and to the V2s’.
Above all each of the four works in East Central has a captivating joie de vivre, translating and celebrating the ‘people, place, music, and lots of laughter and fun’ which fill his memories. Further encapsulating this he says, ‘the family parties were amazing, lots of music hall routines and Motown music’. The importance of music is further underscored by his inclusion of favourite album covers ‘interwoven between the surfaces and the brushstrokes’ of each artwork. Rolph’s international success means that he doesn’t return to EC1 that regularly although he says that, ‘it has always been home in my head and perhaps even more so as I travel so much these days’. But when he does return to the area he is instantly enveloped in the joie de vivre and music: ‘as I walk down Goswell Road or the like I’m in a time warp laughing and singing in my head!’ Which, he adds, ‘may look very strange to passers-by’.
By Guy Sangster-Adams
Danny Rolph – East Central
15 September – 6 November 2016